BOB HARRIS 30TH ANNIVERSARY VIGNETTE
UGP REGIONAL MANAGER REFLECTS ON TRIBAL RELATIONS, PRIVATIZATION, CUSTOMERS
Upper Great Plains Regional Manager Bob Harris started his WAPA career in 1978 as the System Development division director at the former Billings Area Office. Before being named regional manager in 2002, he led the region in engineering, operation, transmission planning, maintenance and marketing.
Here are some of his thoughts on major events in WAPA’s history:
RATE INCREASES IN PICK-SLOAN MISSOURI BASIN—EASTERN DIVISION
“It was extremely nice going so many years (11 years) without a rate increase. Even without increases, we spent those 11 years working closely with our customers, keeping them apprised of our costs and vulnerabilities.
“Because of that effort, in 2004, the need for a 20-percent rate increase wasn’t a surprise to our customers. We always approach our customers as part of the team who need to know things as they happen or don’t happen. The continued drought is disappointing, but it’s certainly a pleasure to work with our customers who understand the situation and are very good about paying for power-related costs associated with the drought.”
SALES TO NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES
“Allocating power to Native American tribes as part of the Post 2000 Resource Pool was a real challenge. We had always delivered power on a wholesale basis to preference entities with utility status or end use loads. So we asked, ‘How do we deliver power to the tribes without utility status?’
“We had a kick off meeting in Billings. All the tribes in the marketing area were in attendance. There was a ton of people. Tension was high. We described the Resource Pool, and the tribes expressed their strong desire to get low cost hydropower delivered to them. The tribes, especially along the Missouri River, felt they contributed substantially to the Missouri River Basin Program and our low-cost hydro power would go a long way to help compensate them for those contributions. After a long and grueling discussion, Jim Davies, then the Regional Manager, assigned me—the Power Marketing Manager—the point of contact. At the time, I certainly didn’t realize the effort that would be involved in building those relationships.
“We met with Mni Sose, who had representation from most of tribes in the region and was nice enough to host a forum for us to consult with tribes on our resource pool allocations. Leslie Kerr and I drove to Rapid City every month for what seemed like several years consulting with tribal representatives until the resource pool allocation process was finally done. These meetings allowed us the opportunity to describe our power program and figure out a way to deliver power and energy to the tribes without compromising our principles. The tribes were able to provide their view of history and how the dams affected their culture and lives.
“Over that whole period of time, it was really about building relationships. We had a relationship with our firm power customers but we needed to build a relationship with the tribes in the region. They really appreciated seeing the same faces, getting to know us, and trusting us a bit before they signed on the dotted line.
“It was certainly a learning experience for me. In the end, I think we were successful. The tribes are still benefiting from their allocations and we made some new friends along the way.”
“Privatization efforts put our customers a little bit at odds and made us all nervous. When you think you’re providing a tremendous service and suddenly somebody says, ‘We’re going to sell you because you shouldn’t be in that business,’ it undercuts your motivation and you weren’t sure what was going to happen to your job. When somebody suggests you can be sold to the highest bidder, it strikes at your core values.
“It obviously caused significant discussion among our customers. Some felt they might not be able to fight this off so it would be better to try to negotiate for the best outcome. Others felt they could stop the effort.
“It was certainly an unsettling time, and even a year after it ended we weren’t sure it was really over. It is still tremendously satisfying to think our customers feel strongly enough about our role in providing low-cost power and transmission service to their end users that they would go to such ends fighting off privatization rather than just put in the highest bid.”
MEMORABLE CUSTOMER INTERACTIONS
“I think we have a relationship with our customers which I’d classify as shoulder to shoulder behind the plow.
“Our customers celebrate and commiserate with us; they are more than customers. They work hard to help us be successful. Often customers in this region put on regional hats. They don’t always demand what’s good for them individually. On many occasions, our customers understand when they have to sacrifice individually, but it’s fair and equitable across the region so they accept it graciously.
“It’s always been a joy to me working with our customers, knowing they are not in it just for themselves. They understand the value of the public power and WAPA’s program. The goal is always the same—provide quality low cost power to the guy at the end of the line.”
THE BILLINGS PLANE CRASH
“That crash (in December 1992) was an unbelievable tragedy. I was in the office working late when the plane crashed. My wife called and told me to be careful on the way home because there was a plane crash. I went to (former Regional Manager) Jim Davies’ office to look out the window and could see the smoke. I never imagined it was our plane. I mean, I couldn’t even think it was our plane. Then when I discovered it was, there was a period of denial: ‘It can’t be, it wasn’t.’ But then you had to face the truth. It’s just such a sad event.
“I knew all the passengers. Most of them I had worked with for many years. I played golf with Dale Corey. Monday and I had just come off long details to Huron. It was like losing family members. It’s hard to imagine that much grief, going to that many funerals in that short of time, right during Christmas season.
“In the office, people are close; it’s almost like a second family. When good and bad things happen to people at the office, it impacts everybody. I believe all of us who experienced the grief of the airplane crash want to make sure we do everything we can to insure nothing like that happens again. I work everyday with competent, hard-working employees who share a common goal and their safety is paramount to me. The accident instilled in me, especially as Regional Manager, the importance of safety on and off the job as well as everybody looking out for each others’ well being.
“Before that plane crash, I’m sure I took some of those things for granted.”
WHAT HE VALUES MOST AT WESTERN
“(What I value most are) relationships. What is most rewarding about working at WAPA for me is the opportunity to work with competent, hard-working employees throughout the agency and our customers. While there may be disagreements at times, we share a common goal and work hard to achieve a common purpose. I certainly do enjoy and value our mission and work, but the relationships outweigh everything else for me.”
HIS PREDICTIONS FOR THE NEXT 30 YEARS
“In the next 30 years, who knows. The industry will look completely different. Power production and delivery will be dramatically different. Even today industry changes present challenges.
“Working side by side with our customers, it’s my belief and expectation in the next 30 years we will continue to have a vibrant mission providing quality power and related services to our customers.”
Last modified on August 23rd, 2023